When Derrick Rose missed significant time last season before the playoffs, the Chicago Bulls surprised many by playing decently. They kept the ship above water and awaited the return of their star just in time for the playoffs.
Sadly, for Bulls fans, the season came to a crashing halt with Rose's devastating injury in the first game of the first round. The Bulls did not respond as they had done earlier in the season without Rose, as the Philadelphia 76ers proved too much for the Bulls to handle.
Two things factored into the playoff loss. First, the emotional letdown was palpable. It is one thing to play without your star when you know there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Bulls faced the ominous prospect of knowing they had to play the duration of the playoffs without Rose.
Secondly, Joakim Noah also went down. The loss of two significant players in the playoffs was simply too much.
So a new season rolled around, and the Bulls once again had to saddle up the horse knowing they would play without their superstar for a generous portion of the season. It would probably be fair to suggest most Bulls fans' best-case scenario was for the team to float around .500 and await the return of Rose for the latter part of the season.
Yet there the Bulls sit, leading their division yet again. They currently are third in the Eastern Conference and will challenge for the best conference record, even if Rose is unable to return.
The Bulls made no significant offseason moves to bolster the roster. Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson have all been useful pieces, but none would be considered difference-makers.
Who will prevail in the East?
The returning Bulls, with the exception of Derrick Rose, feature no bona fide NBA stars. Luol Deng is a very nice supplementary player, Joakim Noah can be dynamic but is wildly inconsistent and Carlos Boozer has his moments but has largely been disappointing.
Jimmy Butler has been a revelation as a young player who shows signs of being a budding star, but he is still very green. Taj Gibson continues to mostly impress as a defensive force, but you never know what you will get from him offensively.
On paper, these Bulls don't strike you as a unit that would contend for anything. So how are they in the hunt for the Eastern conference title?
It all comes down to the coaching.
Tom Thibodeau has done a brilliant job with rotations and riding the hot hand. On any given night, you never know whose number will be called to step up and lead the team.
And that defense. The Bulls consistently force their opponents to earn every basket. The focus on defense almost always allows the Bulls to stay in games and gives them opportunities to win in the fourth quarter, even when they are seemingly overmatched on a talent level.
A telling sign of how well the Bulls are coached is their consistency this season. They have experienced no real peaks or valleys. Their record has been achieved by grinding it out.
There have been no significant winning or losing streaks along the way. This will be important as the playoffs loom closer. It is a team that knows its identity, and knows how to stay within itself to win a playoff series.
On February 1, the Bulls went into Brooklyn and narrowly lost to the team with the fourth-best record in the East. The Bulls are too good to be happy with moral victories, but when you play without Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, Derrick Rose and still almost win, that makes a statement.
The Chicago Bulls just might have the best coach in the NBA, and they probably are the most disciplined team. The Miami Heat are the most talented team in the East, but before you punch them in to repeat as conference champs, you would do well to consider the best-coached team.
The Chicago Bulls could challenge for the title with their current roster. Oh, and there's that little thing about the possible return of a certain player.
The playoffs should be interesting.